108. Breaking Traditions

There are times when what we consider to be “traditions” need to be broken. Yes, that’s right. As the author of this blog titled “Classical Budoka,” which discusses the most tradition-bound types of classical Japanese martial arts, I think some traditions are meant to be broken.

 –That is, they are meant to be broken if they are no longer relevant, meaningful, logical or appropriate. They are meant to be discarded if they are revealed to be antithetical to their purpose and function, if they cause undue harm or negative effects to the practitioner, and if what replaces them are more appropriate for those purposes.

Does that sound like I’m like every adolescent on YouTube who wants to be the next Bruce Lee wannabe, mumbling about “useless traditional martial arts styles, do your own thing, ‘kadda’ is useless, etc., etc.”? Perhaps. But there’s a lot more ifs ands or and buts in my statement.

One of the things that need to be addressed first, however, is that in martial arts, what are the traditions you’re talking about? Are you sure they are “traditions” in a viable, historical sense? Are they actually just some idiosyncrasies of a particular style, or a teacher? Could they be something that was just made up recently? In the case of some dojo in the United States, are they garbled, messed up rituals created by people who have no real idea what the actual traditions are.

For example, one of my colleagues told me that he was once contacted by a karate school regarding the proper way to blow out candles after a belt-awarding ceremony. In Japan, do you blow out the candles with your breath, or do you snuff them out with a candlesnuffer? To my friend, it was (to use an Internet shorthand term) a WTF moment. What the heck are you guys talking about, he asked (more elegantly, of course). In traditional dojo in Japan, there are no such candles! That group’s whole candle lighting services, shuffling around on knees (not moving in shiko, by the way), and shouting “Osu!!!!” at every breath (and doing fist-bumping and high fives along with slapping the thighs with every bow), giving man-hugs (grabbing at the shoulders, patting the back, turning the head to one side) were ridiculous to his own “non-traditional traditionalist” eyes. Those aren’t “traditional” traditions at all.

I’ve encountered several such strange cross-cultural oddities of “tradition” in my years of observing different martial arts schools in the States. No doubt, many of the folk perpetuating or creating those instant traditions mean well, but to a real traditionalist, they look ridiculous, like a mixture of boy’s club secret hand shakes (here’s your Merry Marvel Marching Society secret decoder ring!) with artificially created cosplay rules. Those aren’t true traditions: they’re made up!

In those cases, those aren’t really traditions that go back a long time in their own cultural matrix. They were somehow made up in the transition from one culture to another.

As far as actual traditions go, sometimes some traditions need to disappear because they are based on cultural, ethnic or religious prejudice, and have less to do with the martial system than with cultural prejudices better left in the past. They may be based on old superstitions that do not hold up against modern knowledge or do not fit in a more egalitarian society. For example, some budo instructors were pretty sexist when it came to women training but a few short years ago. They would sniff that women weren’t part of martial arts tradition, but that’s a real myopic view of tradition. In premodern Japan, samurai women may have trained separately, but they did train in classical martial systems, especially in naginata.

As noted in a recent popular historical drama, the daughter of the head of the Chiba kendo dojo at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, was a Chiba Sana. She was nicknamed the Demon Beauty (“Chiba Dojo No Oni No Komachi,” a play on the name “Ono No Komachi,” who was a famous poet and beauty of the Heian Period) of the Chiba dojo because she beat all comers, male or female, in kendo duels. During the civil war that ended the Tokugawa era, a platoon of women samurai of the Aizu domain fought royalist infantry attacking their Aizu Wakamatsu castle of Tsurugaoka, and pushed them back until the soldiers retreated far enough away to shoot them down safely from afar with rifles and cannon fire.

To be sure, in modern budo there is less of a history of women training, but that dearth is a somewhat recent historical situation and it is clearly being rectified as more and more women in many countries take to the enjoyment of training in budo. It also helps that such chauvinism, at least in most First World countries, are being cast aside.

The core traditions of Japan are also changing. In the past, due to Confucian influence, women were excluded from many situations due to their gender. Japan’s aging population and lower birth rates have altered such thinking. With fewer young men and women willing to bend under traditional roles, women are being designated headmasters of strongly traditional systems; they are assuming more and more roles that were once the province of men only. We now have a woman as the first headmaster of a major school of flower arrangement, daughters assuming the mantle of heads of their family arts and crafts traditions, women moving up the corporate ladder, and so on. That inevitable expanding of the social roles of women is reflected in the budo world.

I started training in a very ancient koryu nearly 30-odd years ago. There were only a few diehard young guys who trained with me, and the assumption was that it was too old-fashioned and stifling for any modern-day contemporary female to enjoy it. It’s not that women were banned from training. It was more like, no one was interested. No one sane, that is. Nowadays, I cannot see how the ryu could do without women actively participating. There are housewives who train with their kids, young single women who think it’s cool to train in a koryu, newly married women who use training as a break from their usual schedule to get some physical training and sisterly friendships.

Another example is the sometimes ethnic and/or national chauvinism one might have encountered in some dojo. It was rare to begin with, and is nearly nonexistent now. However, some teachers used to cite “tradition” to mask their prejudice. I know of at least one instructor of a koryu who said he would never teach non-Japanese nationals, period. End of the debate. He made those comments in a Japanese language kendo magazine, claiming that foreigners would never be able to grasp the “uniqueness” of his art. Nowadays, he’s flying out to teach workshops in Europe and North America, collecting frequent flyer miles and many more students all across the globe. It’s amazing what monetary rewards from more tuition and teaching fees can do to change such attitudes.

Another teacher of a famous koryu once remarked in an interview that, although he had several foreigners in his system even as early as from the 1960s and 1970s, he wasn’t sure his ryu could ever be truly transmitted outside of Japan. Even within Japan, he thought that the true transmission of the ryu necessitated a proximity to the geographic location of the Shinto shrine whose deity was the inspiration of the ryu, hence the main dojo had no branches, or shibu. A couple of years after I read that interview, I subsequently read about the first sort-of shibu of that school. A student from a faraway prefecture begged to join the ryu. When he was accepted, he commuted as many times a month as possible, and would train on his own wholeheartedly and sincerely. In due time, the teacher noted his earnestness and also the fact that friends of that student wanted to also practice, but were having a harder time of making the regular commute. Thus, the teacher relented and sanctioned a study group, which became a shibu. I note, now, that the ryu currently has official branches across Japan, and in various countries all over the world.

In these cases it was not so much raw prejudice, as a guarded approach to something new that the ryu had never considered before. What foreigner in their right mind would be interested in learning something so old-fashioned and Japanesey as a koryu? It just never occurred to such teachers that there would be any such people, and so what do you do with those eccentrics? That was never encountered when the ryu was founded, after all.

In the latter two cases, my hunch is that the original misgivings were based on the pragmatic, careful nature of koryu. These classical arts, which retain training methods hundreds of years old, do actually change, but change is slow and careful.

On the other hand, I’ve encountered more prejudice from large, modern martial arts groups than from traditional koryu, where decisions are made on a level “closer to the ground.” I’ve heard of large organizations in which top ranks are only reserved for Japanese nationals, a deliberate reflection of cultural prejudices in some quarters and individuals of Japanese society and not so much of the budo itself. I’ve been iced out of training in a more modern budo style just because of that attitude on the part of some teachers in Hawaii and Japan. My response? I took my marbles and played elsewhere, with other people who weren’t so narrow-minded. Besides, I wouldn’t want to train with them anyway, if they held such prejudices. Those kinds of folk tend to be nasty examples of human beings in the rest of their dealings, too. Why stick around with those kinds of people?

What seems to be anathema to the New Age eclectic martial artists who criticize classical arts, however, may be the perceived regimentation of rituals, etiquette, formality and methodologies. What they appear to be describing, however, are rituals found in more “modern” martial arts, the shinbudo. Some such clubs of judo, karatedo, aikido and kendo do go overboard, but I daresay, my first and ongoing encounter with koryu is that it is more relaxed in terms of formality. Oh, you can be sure that the strictness and discipline is there, but it tends to be more “relaxed.”

The formality of a koryu tends to be based upon the notion that, at heart, the technical nature of the training includes methods that were meant to maim or kill an enemy. You don’t make light of that, ever, although you can still remain friendly and not overly rigid. Formality for is own sake is never the reason in a koryu. The koryu has no sense of training for showing off, for winning a tournament, or for grandstanding. I’ve found that most young men don’t gravitate to the koryu because it’s not something they can show off or strut around like a peacock with. Therefore, there’s no comparative need to rein in obnoxious, exaggerated machismo behavior as you might find in a crowded, popular modern training group.

I also notice that as eclectic systems become more popular, they tend to take on their own share of standardized rituals and stiff training methods. I think it’s inevitable when a system grows and enrolls more students. So it can be a matter of the pot calling the kettle black.

There is a historical example: When karate was accepted as a possible component of physical education classes in Okinawa’s public schools before World War II, the different karate masters had to establish a series of standardized, simplified kata that could be taught in the schools. Each teacher had to forego his/her ryu’s unique styles in order for a broader, more sensible, albeit simplified kind of karate could be taught in the public schools to the greatest number of students. A standardized training regime (warm ups, kihon, ippon and sanbon kumite, Pinan (Heian) kata) was established to make the content easier, standardized and repeatable across the board. No longer was karate taught nearly one-to-one, with a teacher and only a handful of students training in undershirts in the back yard. Now you were talking about hundreds, and then thousands of students whose progress needed to be measured by teachers who may hardly know them and their abilities. Hence, the adaptation of the dan-i ranking system from judo, the belts and white keikogi, the testing system, and other “traditions.”

Take another example: the most well known critic of “that traditional mess” was the late kung-fu action star, Bruce Lee. His words, little understood, have been mouthed by more young punk wannabe martial artists than anyone else in the known universe. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to have heard an interview on public radio one day in which his (now) adult daughter recalled that Lee never forced his kids to walk exactly in his Jeet Kune Do style footsteps. Instead, he enrolled them in traditional judo classes because he felt that judo gave youngsters the best mix of healthy exercise, body dynamics and tumbling, and positive interactions with other youngsters, compared to any other martial arts.

Lee embraced the Weltanschauung (and hubris) of the California pop mentality of his era. “Do your own thing,” “Say no to the Man,” “Down with the Establishment.” All the counter-culture ethos of his time cloaked his outward philosophy and approach to martial arts, which, in many ways, was quite traditional in a practical, Chinese sense. Lee was really not discarding all traditional martial arts so much as distilling and concentrating, as much as he could given his situation, ALL martial arts, into what he thought were their bare essence, and then attempting to fit them to the close-quarter boxing methods of his root art. He used Wing Chun, a most traditional, singular art, as his foundation. You can still see the Wing Chun influence in old films of him and the thread that went from traditional Wing Chun to him to any of his living direct students. And he trained manically, doing the basics of what he adapted, over and over again. It was a self-imposed discipline that echoes the strict regime often seen in traditional dojo. That was no “hang loose” “Do what you feel” hippie-dippie system. Looked at technically, Lee’s methods was a personal system that adapted traditions into a system that few could really master because it required discipline, singular focus and inquisitiveness (and a bit of showmanship and flair) that was unique to him. And then, when he passed, his students had to concretize and formulate Lee’s methods into a “tradition” in order to make sense of it and pass it on to others. So a non-traditional art has, in fact, become an art that relies on tradition, formula and form.

This is not to say that Jeet Kune Do history is unique. I suspect koryu and many modern budo are similar in that a founder may have had an inspired, unexplainable and unique insight into martial arts, and it would take their successors, especially the second and third generations, to formalize and make sense of the core concepts so that they would be coherent and understandable to us lesser mortals. Certainly, I think this is the case with aikido, after talking with many teachers who have had experience studying directly under its founder, Ueshiba Morihei. They would often note that sometimes Ueshiba would lapse into incomprehensible (even to native Japanese speakers) explanations about how his techniques were reliant upon esoteric Shinto and Buddhist deities, the flow of the universe, and so on. Perhaps so, but that doesn’t help any student really understand the actual body dynamics of a technique. In contrast, I have observed Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, and grandson Moriteru, and they tend to be quite clear and concise in terms of explaining practical methodologies and applications.

Another problem with keeping or breaking traditions is that they are often misunderstood as being nonsensical by the ill informed (“form or tradition for its own sake”), and sometimes tradition’s own worst enemies are its misguided proponents who argue for it from a totally wrong point of view.

There are a lot of good reasons, for example, for the standardized training outfits (keikogi) in traditional budo, especially the simple white top and bottom (with black or the indigo-dyed blue of kendo as variations). Having people wear clean training outfits is good for dojo hygiene. I was a middling wrestler on a high school team and one of the biggest problems for our coaches was fighting staph and other skin infections brought on by having our bodies in daily contact with the mats and each other, and some other wrestlers did not have the healthiest of hygiene. Boy, talk about fear of getting cooties. Standardized outfits also gets rid of the natural penchant for some people to wear eye candy and bling-bling to stand out, even in a dojo. That can be distracting, as well as potentially dangerous in a dojo. Someone wearing fancy rings could miss focus on a punch and imprint his/her hunk of jewelry on your face, for example.

Having a set of restrictive rituals and etiquette surrounding sword handling makes total good sense. As anyone who has handled firearms will attest, a lax attitude and laziness is a disaster in the making. Having a healthy respect for bladed weapons, expressed in ritual etiquette, extends to the other formalities of respect given to other weapons and other individuals in the dojo. Any weapon, metal or wood, and any person, could potentially cause needless injury if treated lightly. There’s enough possibility for injury just in the practice itself. There is no sense in multiplying the chances by trivializing those aspects of training just because you don’t like all that “traditional mess.” Etiquette was meant to focus your attention on those things that can be potential sources of danger.

Sensible rituals and etiquette, therefore, were developed to protect and enhance training, not as mere fluff and pageantry.

On the other hand, there are times when variations to tradition are accepted and often necessary, and the proponents of blindly following tradition don’t understand when they have to be broken.

As one example, I once printed a photograph of a very venerable jo instructor in my defunct martial arts magazine. It was a great photo, taken outdoors in Hawaii in a park full of tall grass. I subsequently received a letter from a kendo teacher who criticized the photo and the teacher. The teacher felt that wearing what he called “kung fu” slippers (actually they were jika tabi, a kind of soft-cover black work shoes with rubber soles that are popularly called “ninja shoes” but are really blue-collar construction worker footwear) was sacrilegious to traditional martial arts. You ALWAYS practice bare footed, he declared! That jo teacher was really a disgrace to traditional martial arts because of his breach of etiquette.

Well, yeah. If you wore jika tabi in a wood-floored or tatami-mat dojo, I can see his point. Going barefoot in a Japanese domicile is the cultural norm. Traditional Japanese residencies had very few pieces of furniture. People lived close to the floor, sitting and sleeping on the floor. To tromp in from outside with your shoes on, which may have doggie poo, dried gum, and who knows what kind of germs, is really unhealthy in that situation. More so in a dojo, where you may have intimate skin contact with the floor or mats. You don’t want to have your face shoved into the mats where someone’s shoes also trod, and get it in intimate contact with outside dirt and feces.

But as I gently tried to point out, in Japan there is really no stigma to footwear when practicing outside on uneven, rocky and dangerous ground. When I trained outdoors in koryu, we often went barefoot on grassy areas. That gave us more sure footing so we wouldn’t slip and whack someone in the head. But if our feet were sensitive, or for whatever reasons, if we wore jika tabi, it was no big deal. That’s what they were meant for.

In addition, I noted that the particular park where the picture was taken was infested with keawe trees. These hardy, gnarled trees produce branches that have thorns that can grow over three inches long. Step on one of those thorns by accident and you had better have your tetanus shot up to date. I once hiked a deserted Hawaiian island inhabited only by feral goats and keawe trees, and I spent a good deal of time in the evening pulling out those thorns from my sneakers. If I had walked barefoot, I wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes before I would have collapsed from deep puncture wounds in the soles of my feet.

The jo sensei didn’t “break tradition,” he was using common sense and wore footwear to prevent a visit to the Emergency Room. Indeed, he actually wasn’t “breaking tradition” so much as using tradition (you wear footwear outside, barefoot inside) to deal with a new situation, that of training on thorny ground in Hawaii.

In fact, my own opinion is that “breaking tradition” may mean not so much breaking the traditions of a classical style of martial art, but breaking one’s own traditional prejudices and myopic points of view.

Recently, a friend was approached by a young man who wanted to train in his koryu. The prospective student said he was serious about learning a koryu and would be a devoted and loyal student. Yeah, yeah they all say that.

However, the student said that he would not be willing to train with women, as his religion forbade any contact with the “unclean sex.” And he was deeply devoted to his beliefs, formed from his interpretation of the religion’s texts. My friend teaches two koryu. Offhand I think one koryu is about 400 years old, the other some 450 years old. Yet, however old and steeped in Japanese traditions as they are, there is no inherent restriction against men and women training together. So my friend informed the young man that he couldn’t train with his group. The youth countered by asking if he offered individual, one-to-one teaching. He would be willing to pay for it. No, my friend said. The attitude precluded that because there was naturally going to be times when he had to interact with other students, women included, and besides, he had no time in his schedule to take on an individual student, lucrative tuition or not (probably not).

He thought that was the end of that interchange, but a few weeks later, the young man wrote back with “good news.” He finally talked to a leader of his religious sect, and he was informed that while women were considered separate in terms of roles and social positions, there was nothing in their religion that expressly forbade him from training with them in martial arts.

My friend informed the young man that in spite of that reversal of his core beliefs, he would not be accepted into the ryu. In slightly more genteel terms, he told the youth that the exchange with him had been a pain in the butt, and was revelatory in that the young man may also encounter issues with other things practiced by the koryu, such as bowing to a kamiza, actually touching a member of the opposite sex, showing them equal respect, bowing to other humans, and so on. If he felt that his interpretation of his religion was so restrictive about one thing, surely it was going to cause problems with other traditions. So good luck on finding a koryu teacher who will allow your personal prejudices, don’t let the door slam your butt on the way out, and get out of my face.

That’s an example of a situation in which “breaking tradition” really means breaking one’s own inbred prejudices and fears. Finding and breaking fake traditions or even overriding old ones that have outlived their usefulness are easy. But what about your own traditional fears and prejudices?